I was at a border post from Friday to Sunday morning, and I can confirm that there was a massive flow of Cambodian workers trying to leave the country. There were lines of trucks several kilometres long. The border outpost of Pompiet, where I was, normally closes at 9pm, but these days often stays open until 3am.
Many workers that I spoke with, especially those coming from Bangkok, explained that the Thai army forced them to leave their homes. According to them, the soldiers attacked those who did not cooperate and shot their guns into the air. Others claim that the soldiers were screaming into speakers that all Cambodian workers must leave and that they would no longer be tolerated on Thai territory. This rumour has propagated throughout the Cambodian community and the mass departures have kept increasing since then. When they reach the border, many Cambodians are very worried and fear that agents may mistreat them.
“They all came to Thailand because salaries here are significantly higher than in Cambodia”
These people are very poor. They work in low-skilled jobs, often in construction, the garment industry, or agriculture. All of them came to Thailand for a simple reason: salaries in Thailand are significantly higher than in Cambodia. They might be paid $10 per day, while in Cambodia, they might make about $85 in a month. But even with these higher salaries, they do not live well, because they send part of their income to their families back in Cambodia. They own nothing, no house or land. Often, their families lack access to public services and basic health care in Cambodia.
“The government suspects the Cambodian immigrants may be more sympathetic to the ‘red shirts’”
This sudden hard-line attitude toward undocumented workers is of course related to the events that led to the coup in May in Thailand. Several of the workers that I spoke to believe that the government targeted them as a group because they are said to be more sympathetic to the ‘red shirts’. Several red shirt leaders have taken refuge in Cambodia. There are baseless rumours
according to which these workers have taken part in ‘red shirt’ protests. I personally am very doubtful that undocumented workers would take the risk of participating in protests… But it seems that this persistent rumour has had some effect.
There is a lot of confusion about what is going on, and nobody is able to say whether this mass departure is permanent or not. Some workers that I spoke with are fairly optimistic, and they think that they will be able to go back to work in Thailand within a few weeks. The fact that they are willing to work for lower salaries than Thai workers is, of course, quite an advantage for the companies that hire them, and Thai society as a whole would be harmed if they were to permanently leave, because relatively few Thai people are willing to perform these low-skilled jobs.
However, it is possible that the junta may attempt to more closely monitor them and to distribute work permits at the border, but this would probably mean that fewer of them would be able to go back to Thailand. And they would first need to pay for their return trip… In any case, their return to Cambodia for an indefinite period of time is going to cause problems, as there are more than 100,000 of them in a country of 13 million. This is a significant influx, and I don’t know what will become of them.